A Universal New Year

| Rosh Hashanah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 27, 2003 / 5764 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Living in a universe at least thirteen billion years old, we view with mild disclaim an ancient rabbinic dispute over the exact month in which God created it. Not long after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, two of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s renowned disciples expressed opposing views. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus insisted that God had created the world in the month of Tishrei, while Rabbi Yekoshua ben Hananyah contended that the event occurred in Nisan. Both rejected the Geek view that the cosmos might be eternal and uncreated. For the Torah and rabbinic Judaism, the ultimate reassurance of God’s existence is the miracle of creation, the mother of all miracles (BT Rosh Hashanah 106-11a).

What interests me, however, in this piquant dispute is that Rabbi Eliezer’s view became normative. Nearly two centuries later, a Babylonian sage who settled in Israel, Rabbi Shmuel ben Yitzhak, established that our liturgy for Rosh Hashanah should incorporate the claim of Rabbi Eliezer that “this day is the beginning of Your deeds, the commemoration of the very first day” (ibid., 27a). And, indeed, each time we hear the blast of the shofar during the repetition of the Musaf amidah (silent devotion), we respond heartily with the declaration that “on this day was the world created.” The motif of creation, then, is inextricably linked to that of judgment. We continue in the same passage: “Today God places all human beings in the dock, whether as children or as slaves.”

There is more to this linkage than aligning the calendar. Creation is the key to the deep meaning of Rosh Hashanah. Creation represents the triumph of order over chaos. Prior to God’s intervention, all was in disarray without a trace of form, color or life. With a touch of defiance, Judaism chose to fix its new year in the fall, when daylight diminishes, temperatures drop and nature sheds her festive garb. Foreboding signs of disorder evoke in us feelings of unease and melancholy. We grow less confident in the durability of the world’s order. In the face of that pessimism, Rosh Hashanah helps us to sustain our faith in the orderliness, permanence and meaningfulness of God’s creation.

It summons us as well not to invigorate the forces of chaos. In the corner of the cosmos that we inhabit, humans wreak havoc on a grand scale. Instead of serving as God’s partners in preserving and enhancing creation, we undermine it wittingly and unwittingly. With the harsh sounds of the shofar, reminiscent of a primordial time free of human artifice, Rosh Hashanah calls us to account each year in a vain effort to impede our destructive urges. In the court of the Almighty there are no subterfuges. The testimony of our deeds bears witness against us. Only genuine confession and contrition can soften the severity of our sentence.

In this context, teshuvah is nothing more than what its root means: to return, that is, to the disposition prior to the eruption of our passions and the harm they have wrought. The universal goal is to restore the world to the harmony that reigned at the beginning. How quickly does human history unravel to the point where God soon after creation regrets having created us because “every human design is born of evil intent” (Genesis 6:5). Judaism, though, lacks a notion of unmerited grace. On the path back to God, we must take the first step. Reconciliation turns on human initiative.

Had the view of Rabbi Yehoshua prevailed that the cosmos was created in Nisan, the meaning of Rosh Hashanah would have been gravely depleted. Associating creation with the exodus from Egypt would have stripped Rosh Hashanah of its universal thrust. God would be sitting in judgment on Jews alone. But the text of the Mishnah, published two generations after the clash over the month of creation, is clearly predicated on the view of Rabbi Eliezer: “On Rosh Hashanah all the earth’s inhabitants pass before God as a troop of legionnaires” (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The military image underscores the importance of every single soldier. No one escapes the attentive gaze of the commanding officer. Similarly, with creation at stake, no human being draws a bye. Each of us merits a tremulous moment alone with God to determine if we are fit to serve another year. Rosh Hashanah is Judaism’s least parochial holy day.

In the spirit of the Mishnah, we intone in each and every amidah a fervent prayer for the world peace that ever eludes us:

O Lord our God, let all Your creatures sense Your awesome power, let all that You have fashioned stand in fear and trembling. Let all mankind pledge You their allegiance, united wholeheartedly to carry out Your will. For we know, Lord our God, that Your sovereignty, Your power and Your awesome majesty are supreme over all creation (Harlow Mahzor, pp.371-2).

By acknowledging God’s supremity, we shrink our own inveterate arrogance just enough to make room for others in our lives and on the planet.

Yet strikingly, Judaism does not obliterate the parochial to get to the universal. Rosh Hashanah is not the only new year in our calendar. It shares pride of place with Passover. Anchored in the origins of the cosmos, Rosh Hashanah avows the sanctity of every individual and all humanity. In contrast, Passover commemorates the birth of the Jewish people as an instrument of God’s will. The duality suggests that national identity and individual humanity are not antithetical values. Only in tandem may they yet spawn the mutual respect vital for a lasting comity of nations.

I pray that this coming year will bring us closer to realizing our unanswered yearning.

Leshanah tovah tikatevu

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Rosh Hashanah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.